By Jay N. Miller, The Enterprise (Brockton)
BRIDGEWATER, Mass. -- "We talk about needing talent and heart in this sport, but today I think we won because we showed more heart than anything," said Bridgewater State football coach Joe Verria moments after the Bears scored a touchdown with 2:26 left to defeat Buffalo State, 30-29, on Saturday afternoon.
As incredible as it sounds, that score doesn't even reflect how close this game was. The Bears committed three turnovers in the first period but battled back and went into the final stanza tied with the Bengals. But then two drives inside the Buffalo State 10-yard line came up empty before Bears junior running back Nick Santavicca swept the right end to put them ahead, with Jacob Crear's kick making it 30-23.
But a personal foul penalty jump-started a Bengals drive after that, and as the final minute ticked away Buffalo State made a first down on the Bears' 6-yard line. After the Bears stuffed two runs, Bengals quarterback Kevin Torrillo hit Jamar Rutledge with a 2-yard scoring pass with 27 seconds to go.
Eschewing the tie, Buffalo State went for the two-pointer, and Torrillo tried to connect with Vinny Gregory, running a crossing route along the back endline, only to have the play broken up by Bears sophomore linebacker Michael Rosa.
"After those early turnovers we kept fighting," said Verria. "That first quarter? It's our first game, and you find things out - good things and bad things, but they kept working. Being stopped twice in that fourth quarter was a result of Buffalo State being a real good defensive team. That's one of the better defenses we'll see all season, so this was a good test. But again, we found out some things about ourselves, and we never gave up and just kept coming back at them."
Perhaps the prime example of Bridgewater State's tenacity was Santavicca, as the 5-foot-8, 185-pound scatback from Yorktown Heights, N.Y., was the team's workhorse back on Saturday, lugging the pigskin 32 times and gaining 200 yards, most of it between the tackles. But Santavicca's career high was marred in the first drive of that fourth quarter when he tried to sweep right end from the 9-yard line and got hit and fumbled as he went out of bounds around the 1-yard line. The officials ruled the ball had rolled into the pylon, and thus called it a touchback, giving possession to the Bengals at the 20 with 11:36 left.
But that setback didn't deter Santavicca or his mates. Even when a subsequent, nine-play Bridgewater State march ran out of downs at the Buffalo State 9-yard-line with 5:42 to play, the Bears didn't doubt themselves.
"Yes, the pylon - that was an interesting call," Santavicca said with a shake of the head. "But I just felt we had to move on. You're going to hit adversity in this game, and you have to turn the page and keep at it. Our attitude on the sideline and in the huddle was just that: The game's not over and we're still in it, so we've got to keep getting after it."
Santavicca's debut as the Bears' featured back was certainly a good one, with a pair of touchdowns to go with his 200 yards. Last season, in limited play, Santavicca gained a total of 83 yards.
"Oh it's definitely a career high," said Santavicca. "It feels great to do it in a comeback win like this, too. But the way my linemen blocked so fantastically today, my job was easy. This is a great start to our season, a real step in the right direction."
Said Verria: "Nick is a very tough, hard runner. And what I love is that he's the kind of kid who can make a mistake, and bounce right back."
Bridgewater State, 2-8 last fall, had a rocky start. Five plays into the game, Bengals linebacker Rolando Cercone picked off a pass from BSU quarterback Stefano D'Emilia at the Bears' 43 and returned it to the 38. Buffalo State then engineered a nine-play drive that ended with Merrick Sproule's wobbly 32-yard field goal midway through the first period.
The Bears answered with their own eight-play drive, culminating in Crear's 36-yard field goal for a 3-3 deadlock with 4:30 left in the opening stanza. A shanked Bengals punt that went only 13 yards to the Bears' 43 seemed like a break for the home team, but a fumble on the Buffalo State 42 gave the ball right back. The next series saw the visitors score in only six plays, as Torrillo hit a wide-open Rutledge for a 25-yard scoring strike and a 10-3 lead with 11 seconds left in the period. But those 11 seconds were enough for the Bears to fumble on their first play, giving the ball back to the Bengals.
Bridgewater State began playing better as soon as the second period began, stopping their foes and firing up their own six-play march, with D'Emilia hitting senior split end Travis Bassett for a 41-yard score. Actually Bassett, who missed last year with injury, caught the ball about 10 yards past the line of scrimmage and then artfully dodged his way through the defense to paydirt, with Crear's kick making it 10-10 9:22 before the half.
The Bears' defensive backs had trouble with Torrillo's deep passing all day, and a 40-yard completion to Jordan Evert was the key play in an eight-play Bengals march. Torrillo hit running back Paul Tonic (103 yards on 25 carries) with a 9-yard scoring pass to cap it off, but Buffalo State's point-after kick sailed wide for a 16-10 margin that lasted until halftime.
Buffalo State netted a strip-sack on D'Emilia with 3:40 in the half, with the fumble recovered at the Bears' 35. Then, Bears senior DB Kyle Dance picked off a Torrillo pass with 20 seconds left in the half, but two plays later, a lineman hit D'Emilia's arm as he was throwing, and the Bengals intercepted his pass as the half expired. But with five turnovers in the half, Bridgewater State was fortunate to only be trailing by six points.
Bears senior split end Jack Lavanchy had been held to only three catches in the first half, but he became a focal point in the third period, catching three more in a 13-play drive that ended with Santavicca plunging over from 9 yards out. But the Bears missed their point-after kick, so it was 16-16 midway through the third frame.
Torrillo's vertical passing game bit the Bears once more as he found Evert for a 56-yard TD that put the visitors back on top, 23-16. But D'Emilia can heave the ball, too, as he proved in a five-play lightning-strike drive that ended with a 30-yard toss to Lavanchy down the left sideline for a 23-23 deadlock going into that fateful fourth quarter.
It was obvious Buffalo State couldn't stop its hosts in that fourth period, but it was also clear that the Bengals also had a dangerous offense, and the Bridgewater State defense stood strong when it had to. But the issue was in doubt right up until freshman Nathan Ellis smothered the Bengals' onside kick with 20-odd seconds to go.
Lavanchy moved into second place all-time for Bears receiving yards with his 109 yards on 10 catches. Ironically, he moved ahead of Bassett, who grabbed four receptions for 86 yards, but Bassett's career total surpassed 2,000 yards on Saturday. D'Emilia hit on 17 of 26 passes for 211 yards, two TDs and two picks. Torrillo connected on 20 of 33 throws for 264 yards, four TDs and two interceptions.
"Our offensive coaches do a great job of getting Jack Lavanchy open, even though other teams are all aware of him," said Verria. "He's been very reliable for us his whole career, and our quarterback knows he can go to him at any time. But having Travis Bassett back this year is going to be a real boost for our passing game - we're looking for him to have a big year."
Bridgewater State next travels to Endicott for a 7 p.m. game on Friday.